For these things I weep

Al eleh ani bochi’a – for these things I weep’ – I write with a heavy heart, as is the wont on this Sabbath before the fast of the Ninth of Av, Shabbat Katan, ‘the diminished Shabbat’. This year it will indeed be diminished as the joy of the Sabbath yields in its last hour to the commencement of the bleak fast of Tishah be’Av which commemorate destruction.

To me the fast is less about the destruction of the First and Second Temples than about the sacking of the city in which they stood. True, the Temples were profoundly important, the centre of Jewish worship in the ancient world; to this very day, whenever we pray, we turn to face towards where they stood. But, like the vast majority of Jews, I wouldn’t want them rebuilt, even if that were a possibility. Judaism grew, remarkably, courageously and irreversibly, following their destruction. It developed into the religion of community, prayer and learning for all, accessible to all (at least ideally) and capable of replication anywhere, which we know and cherish today.

It’s the destruction of cities which pains and terrifies me, Jerusalem twice, and so many other cities and quarters, Juderias and ghettoes, stetls and houses of learning, through the centuries since. It’s the haunting descriptions of what parents suffered when they watched their children starve, and what children suffered when they realised that their all-providing parents were now powerless to help them. ‘“Where is corn and wine?”, they cried, as they fainted of hunger and died, curled against their mothers’. (Lamentations 2)

Those of us over a certain age don’t need to be told; such scenes inhabit sectors of their memory which revisit them in nightmares. The rest of us have seen and heard on the media, – from Sarajevo, from Aleppo this very day. How can one not feel pity for the people of Aleppo, for the hungry, terrified children, for the parents desperate to get their offspring out of there, for the victims of gas attacks?
“And a few minutes later, the smell of gas started spreading… and I felt my eyes burning and difficulties in breathing,” he said. “The smell was very strong – beyond any description”. (BBC News)

I heard a spokesman plead for longer ceasefires: ‘But there are two million people in that city; the convoys have to be very large. Three hours is not enough time!’

Al eleh ani bochi’a – for these things we weep’ – and also for the everyday sorrows we know too well: friends ill, dying, losing those they have loved and lived alongside most of their lives.

But, and it’s a crucial, transformative but, we would not weep, or even think to weep, if we did not love life. There is no sorrow in the loss of something hateful, no compassion for what one holds in contempt. We weep because trees are beautiful; because human life is capable of indescribable tenderness; because we deeply love the companionship to which we have become so familiar we take it for granted – ‘there, that’s your cup of tea and your biscuit’-; we weep because in the setting sun in the western sky there is something which haunts and humbles us with the intuition of a vast and timeless life-force of unfathomable power and inimitable delicacy. It is these things which make our hearts malleable to compassion and our eyes susceptible to tears.

The liturgy of Tisha Be’Av, and its repeated reality in today’s world, brings before us scene upon scene of destruction, disasters our own people has suffered, and, by extension, those suffered by others. It calls on us not to weep for our lives alone but to expand the circumference of our compassion, to our own people, and to others, and to act so that there is less destructiveness and more companionship, solidarity, joy and creativity in the world.

We should share our moment of existence, which we inhabit so briefly and with such frailty, not in mutual hate, or fear, or disregard; but with gratitude, compassion, and dedication to the nurture of life.

Refugee children: how can we not help?

I’m never sure whether to call the Hebrew month which starts today Menachem Av, or simply Av. The Talmudic tradition is that the names of the months of the Jewish year ‘came up with the people from Babylon’. That is, they date from after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE and don’t mean anything in Hebrew. But Menachem is different: Menachem means ‘comforter’.

So what’s comforting about the month of Av? The first nine days are the most profound period of mourning in the Jewish year, culminating in the bleak fast of Tishah Be’Av. The period is marked by special stringency: no music, no entertainment, no wine (except on Shabbat), no meat (a relief for some of us) and the ritual slaughterer puts away his knife.

Instead, we recall the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the laying waste of the whole city of Jerusalem, especially by the Romans in 70CE. This is painful not just because it is history, our history, but because it is also today’s reality, not, thank God, in Jerusalem, but in Sarajevo in the 1990’s, in Aleppo, across much of Syria, and elsewhere in the world today. The street scenes are probably not that different from 2,000 years ago: smashed houses, the dead, the hungry, the fleeing, the terrified children.

Some of these children, alone, bereaved, left behind in killing zones or fleeing separately to Europe, are on our borders in Calais. Others in northern Greece are desperate for care, prey to traffickers and gangs. The Guardian carried a powerful feature last Wednesday.

I’ve spoken to many people spending their time, money and hearts to help. I’ve set out information below on several organisations and how we can support them. I have personal links to them all. I’m not taking my family on holiday with the thought that I’ve done nothing to help a single one of those children or families living with a traumatised past, a lonely and terrifying present and an uncertain future. I plan to put money where my mouth is, and believe we should all do so, according to our capacity. I thought, ‘If I’m spending x on my family, myself and our holiday, then surely at least y should go to others’.

I listened this week to Keren Simons, who grew up in our synagogue, whose family are active members, and who’s been working for World Jewish Relief, in partnership with the Greek NGO Praxis, in Lesbos, Athens and elsewhere with unaccompanied minors. She is so dedicated to the work that she now plans to volunteer. I’m committed to our community supporting her, if only through the small gifts one has to bring such children to offer them something creative to do, to spend the uncertain hours…

These current horrors remind me of a line from Lamentations, ‘Better the death-pangs of the sword than of hunger’ – better a swift than a slow death because nobody comes to help. We must not leave people, especially children, to suffer the slow dying of their hopes for friendship, companionship, reunification with their families, a future, a life…

So what’s comforting, what’s Menachem, about the month of Av? The 15th is traditionally kept as a festival Tu be’Av; in fact, it’s the original Jewish version of Valentine’s, a day of singing, dancing and dating. It redeems the month from sorrow; it constitutes a public declaration that whatever has happened in the past, we are determined to have a future.

Can we share that determination with these children? For them, and for us too as we survey our wounded and violent world, comfort will only come from what we can do to help.

I believe we have a constant responsibility to help our own people, and also to help all who are desperate and suffering, whenever we can. All of us are created in God’s image, words which have little meaning unless we live it out through striving for compassion and justice.

I don’t often write in this vein. Please don’t just forgive me, but support the values I have tried to express…

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov – a worthwhile month.

Here are ways to help…

This crisis is ongoing and we will be working further to ask for help in early September.

World Jewish Relief

World Jewish Relief is providing food, shelter and emergency materials to refugees in Turkey and Greece who are fleeing war and persecution. World Jewish Relief assisted tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, including through the Kindertransport. We are now building on this history, using our expertise to respond to the current challenge.

WJR has a special scheme to offer employment to refugees who have been allowed to enter Britain which you can read about here.

Help Refugees

Help Refugees gives massive assistance in Calais and in Greece and elsewhere by providing shelter, sleeping bags, warm meals and other essentials on a significant scale, and by supporting Safe Passage (see below).

Help Refugees has also developed a buddy system together with Citizens UK to ensure a strong intergovernmental response, full humanitarian and legal protection for the children. Your generous donation will go towards ensuring the lone children are cared for whilst living in the camp, have legal protection and care when they arrive in England.  For any further information please email Matty on

Safe Passage UK

Legal routes to sanctuary (can be supported via Help Refugees)
A campaign in support of refugee children by the British Jewish community.

There are an estimated 150 unaccompanied children in the refugee camps around Calais who have family living in the UK. They currently live in constant risk of violence, despite having the legal right to claim asylum in the UK. There is a legal route for them to be reunited with their families and afforded the care and safety they deserve. Safe Passage UK are this legal route. Safe Passage UK needs to raise £2,000 per child to cover the cost of the legal process, transport and support the child will need to claim asylum here in Britain. Ultimately it is £2,000 to reunite them with their families under the Dublin III and ECHR 8 orders. There is an urgent need right now – the camp in Calais is signalled to be demolished this autumn. These children are likely to go ‘missing’ and we fear for their safety and lives.

Refugees at Home

Refugees at Home are a group of volunteers who match altruistic hosts with asylum-seekers and refugees. We started setting up just over a year ago and rolled out properly in early February 2016. Since then we have made 117 placements. These vary in length and number of people – a placement may be one person for one night or three people for months and months. So we have a new measurement tool: we can count the number of nights people have been hosted. The current total is 3,283, which is a huge number of nights our guests have NOT spent in parks, on night buses, at train stations or in other uncomfortable, undignified and downright dangerous places. Our guests are referred by the Red Cross, the Refugee Council, St Mungo’s, the Passage and the drop-ins – including the NNLS one – across London.

Refugee Trauma Initiative

Refugee Trauma Initiative works to reduce the trauma and enhance the wellbeing of refugees by offering psychosocial support to individuals and families living in refugee camps, and training and supporting volunteers working there. A core value of our work includes respecting the humanity and dignity of all people.  RTI draws on the founding team’s extensive personal and professional experience of both living as refugees and of working cross-culturally with people who have been traumatised by migration, political conflict and torture. We also draw on our vast experience of providing training and support for health care professionals.

New North London Synagogue

You can support volunteers from our community via my discretionary fund at the Synagogue. Contact Accounts for more details.

We must not forget the ongoing work of the Asylum Seekers Drop In. The Drop In supports up to 400 destitute asylum seekers and their children and is held on the first Sunday of each month at premises near to the synagogue. Our volunteers offer legal signposting, appointments with doctors and therapists, nutritious cooked food, nearly-new or new clothing and footwear and a welcoming, warm and friendly space. Every client also receives a supermarket voucher and travel expenses. To donate to the drop-in please click here to download donation form.

Get in touch...